Talking Heads: Nicholas Daniel

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Interview by Ben Hogwood

As part of the inspiring Summer At Snape season, the counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel, are giving world premiere performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards. Arcana took the chance to talk with Daniel, who received an OBE for his dedication to music in October 2020, about his lasting friendship with Sir John, as well as his hopes for live music in such a difficult time.

To begin, we look back to Daniel’s first musical meeting with the composer. “I remember hearing The Whale and thinking it was fabulous and risqué,” he says. “It became a piece people talked about more than heard when I was at the Royal Academy. I first met him through Richard Hickox, who I persuaded to ask John to write for me as a thank you for playing at his and Pamela’s wedding.”

While writing La Noche Oscura, Tavener did not consult with his dedicatees. “He never consulted with me about writing”, says Daniel. “I don’t know whether he did with other artists, but for me his pieces seemed to have arrived as a newborn but sitting up and asking for food. Even with Kaleidoscopes we only vaguely discussed the idea of wearing Indian clothes to play it and lighting it really well, months before he wrote it.”

The piece itself is an intriguing balancing act “Noche has inside it a major contradiction in terms. The words are absolutely agonising: “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me moaning?” “Tell him I suffer, grieve and die” “but thou hast utterly rejected us: thou art very wroth against us,” but the music is not. He says “shining, intense, with majesty and grandeur”, and from my preparation I see the music as flowing through the words to a place where the music is in control. It’s as though the grinding agony of the words are not ignored, but swept away by the beauty of the harmony. It seems a little like Niobe, Britten’s D flat Major tribute to the Queen whose 14 children died (from the 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe), or maybe Gluck’s Che faro senza Euridice, which has nobility in the face of death. Interestingly both those pieces take their lead from Greek Myth.”

Written for oboe and countertenor, La Noche Oscura blends a relatively unusual combination of soloists, though Daniel refutes my initial suggestion the combination would be hard to balance. “In what way would it be difficult? Because Andrew Watts has the biggest counter tenor voice on the planet and therefore the oboe would be drowned? Possibly. Or that the oboe in the high register might drown the counter tenor in the middle? Well, John knew my playing very well and my high register is something I’ve worked very much to develop over years, partly through composers writing death defyingly quiet music for me up there. Listen to the cadenza of John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto for instance. Noche is a whole major third lower in my part than the highest parts of Kaleidoscopes and I know how to balance to the gentler parts of a counter tenor voice anyway.”

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He speaks with great warmth of Tavener (above), both as a friend and as a composer. “I adored him. He was completely unique, and although he maybe lived in other realms as well as ours he was completely able to exist in a very charming and entertaining way in the here and now. I think that he probably felt quite relaxed with me because he was very free in what he said, possibly sensing in me the very non-judgemental and open nature of my soul. His health must have been such a burden to him, and I was always slightly aware of his frailty – the main time I knew him was towards the end of his life. I will never forget the sound he made on the piano and ‘singing’ the music he’d written for me. It was like a seance.”

Is his music particularly appropriate for the times we are living through? “I believe that John’s music is appropriate for any time and any space. He can turn a bike shed into a cathedral with his music. I would love to think that as we have entered the very promising Age of Aquarius we might find it has uses for meditation, for finding stillness, and for connecting ourselves with the planet and with each other.”

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Talk turns to the pandemic, and a particularly special concert Daniel and long-time recital partner Julius Drake gave at the Wigmore Hall in 2020 (above), part of a special season of lunchtime concerts marking the hall’s reopening in June. It was a meaningful concert for those watching online – and for the two performers. “Oh my goodness, thank you. Well, it was a fantastic moment to be able to play to the world, yes. We chose the programme to entertain, and to touch people’s hearts. It was very moving how the artists in that first week all supported each other by text messages!  It was so special to play two new pieces there, by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, and also to play Madaleine Dring’s music, which I adore. As it happened it was two days after the murder of George Floyd, and I decided to dedicate the Bach encore to his memory. It proved harder than I thought to speak about it. The reality is the piece I played (basically in one breath using circular breathing) was shorter than the time he was prevented from breathing. The connection was obvious and absolutely shattering.”

The current situation with Government restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic means plans for future concerts are sadly up in the air. The reality is stark, and Daniel’s diary has a small number of entries. “A few. Incredibly few. 2023 is looking a little better than the rest of 2021 and 2022 put together. This is all going to take some time. It’s also going to take some fearless programming and risk taking to make concerts irresistibly inviting. New music, new presentation, fresh diverse repertoire; young, diverse artists, a fresh dawn for true diversity and the certain knowledge that we will never take an audience for granted ever again.”

There is a little consolation on the recording front, where Daniel has been busy. “Haha! I’ve been very lucky to have some recordings released over the last while, music by Eleanor Alberga, Roxanna Panufnik and Mark Simpson with Mozart, the latter recorded in lockdown. I had the huge joy of recording a disc for my new label Chandos with the exquisite Doric Quartet of British music which will be out later in the year. On that disc I recorded the Delius Two Interludes on Leon Goossens’ 1911 Lorée Oboe. It was a huge privilege to be allowed to play this massively historic and important instrument.”

Will his approach to making music be any different after the pandemic? “Yes”, he says emphatically. “I’m saying to my students that it has to BURN. No prisoners can be taken, risk taking is everything and make it HIT the audience like your life depends on it. Now is the time to make music COMPLETELY relevant to people’s lives, especially to our children, each one of whom deserves to play an instrument and learn the language of music. Scotland is giving this to their children but England and the rest of the U.K.? Not yet.”

The effects of restrictions imposed in the pandemic are clear to see, and Daniel addresses this head on. “I would love audiences to spare a moment of thought for the artists right now, let alone the effect on our incomes. Not being on stage for more than a year plays havoc with your mind, and just getting to the concert hall seems to involve rules and regulations and risks we have never known before. Personally I’m very grateful that people are taking some of the same risks coming to hear concerts, but it feels weirdly exposing to walk on stage to the smell of hand sanitiser having just ripped off your mask, metres apart from your colleagues. We do it despite these things because we want to and because we have to, and because most of us are addicted to music and concerts.”

Andrew Watts and Nicholas Daniel will give two performances of Sir John Tavener’s La Noche Oscura with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Sian Edwards at Snape Maltings on Friday 25 June. Their program, part of the ongoing Summer at Snape festival, includes music by Handel, Tansy Davies and two works by Britten, including the Temporal Variations orchestrated by Colin Matthews – who spoke with Arcana earlier in the season here. For details and tickets click here

Summer at Snape runs from Friday 4 June until Saturday 11 July. For full details on all the live events, visit the Snape Maltings website.
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